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New book's scariest threat is being talked to death by its characters.
Published Sep. 21, 2009

It may be possible for a thriller to be too cheerful.

Nothing I or any other critic can say will have much effect on sales of The Lost Symbol, the breathlessly awaited sequel to Dan Brown's gargantuan bestseller The Da Vinci Code. But Symbol is just too darn nice to be very thrilling.

Published Tuesday, Symbol immediately broke the record for first-day U.S. sales of adult fiction, with a million copies flying into the hands of eager readers. (The overall first-day U.S. sales record, 8.7 million copies, still belongs to the final book about a boy who also knows a little about magical objects: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.) That's a pretty good start, although Symbol has a way to go to match Da Vinci, which has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

Many of those fans are likely to be satisfied. Symbol delivers another adventure - this one occurring in a single night (although it feels longer because everyone talks so much) - in which Harvard professor Robert Langdon must solve a gruesome crime using his knowledge of symbology, the study of symbols used in various eras and cultures.

Brown gives us a major city full of historic landmarks and artworks, this time Washington, D.C., and a plot involving a secretive organization (the Freemasons) and a ruthless, weird killer. He ponies up a graduate seminar's worth of arcane knowledge (this man loves his research) and laces it all with toys ranging from ancient artifacts with biblical pedigrees to helicopters with electromagnetic pulse guns.

Symbol begins when Langdon is called urgently to Washington by the assistant to his dear friend and mentor Peter Solomon, a wealthy and prominent philanthropist. Can Langdon fill in for a lecturer at a benefit at the U.S. Capitol - that evening?

A private jet flight and limo ride later, Langdon rushes to the Capitol to find not a waiting audience but a horrified gaggle of tourists huddled around a severed hand, propped upright in the center of the Statuary Hall.

Langdon recognizes his friend's Masonic ring - but not the tiny crown and star tattoos on the fingertips. Soon a phone call from Solomon's "assistant" reveals that his friend has been kidnapped, and only Langdon's esoteric knowledge can save him.

So, we're off to the races, with Langdon aided by Solomon's attractive, brilliant sister, Katherine, who is conducting secret breakthrough research in Noetics, the science of the power of human thought, like thinking really hard to make ice crystals form a certain way and other, perhaps more useful applications.

Chapters focusing on Langdon and Katherine alternate with chapters about the kidnapper, a mad, tattooed, bald giant who calls himself Mal'akh, although many in the city know him as the rich, genteel, blond Dr. Christopher Abaddon. His past is shrouded in mystery, although if you don't guess who he really is by halfway through, you're not paying attention.

The story, which also involves a CIA investigator right out of a World War II movie, a character called the Architect of the Capitol who has Morgan Freeman's name written all over him, Turkish prisons and a slo-mo escape on a conveyor belt in the Library of Congress, moves along all right, but it doesn't exactly race.

The pace is slowed by all the conversation: Everyone talks like a tour guide or museum docent, except Langdon, who always sounds like he's delivering a lecture, and Mal'akh, who sounds like he has read way too much Aleister Crowley.

And Brown's style is as prolix as ever; his motto seems to be "Never use five words when you can cobble together 20."

But perhaps the most problematical element of Symbol is how Brown uses his secret society of choice. In Da Vinci, the group at the heart of the plot, the conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei, were the bad guys, and powerful ones. That albino monk was scary, but he was just a henchman.

Symbol, on the other hand, might as well be an infomercial for the Freemasons, who are depicted as pretty much running the world and doing a darn good job of it. Instead of Langdon trying to expose an insidious plot by an international cult, he's fighting a single rabid villain with the help of an international society devoted to the good of all, which lowers the threat level quite a bit.

When I read a thriller, I'm willing to suspend disbelief about all sorts of preposterous things, from the minor (a research scientist who doesn't recognize Latin when she sees it) to the major (the CIA instituting a research-sharing program).

But Brown tends to overexplain some things - we get it about the pyramids, already - and blunder right past others. Although the Freemasons are just crazy about symbology, in the decade that Mal'akh is living in Washington and working his way up to 33rd degree Mason as part of his plot, no one in the society seems to question why his alter ego Dr. Abaddon shares a name with the fallen angel who rules the bottomless pit of hell in Revelation.

And one thing in The Lost Symbol stretched my credulity until it snapped. Mal'akh boasts grotesque full-body (and I do mean full-body) tattoos. I'm willing to believe he applies some of them himself; I've seen tattoo artists do just that, although they don't usually use ink made of ashes and human blood.

But apparently whenever Mal'akh wants to go out as Abaddon or in some other disguise, he just covers those tats with what Brown breezily calls "concealing makeup" and no one notices a thing.

Seriously? Even when he's skulking around wearing an overcoat over a blazer, or a big old blond wig, that makeup never runs or melts?

For all his lengthy explanations of circumpuncts and symbolons,Brown never explains this. But if Mal'akh has the key to that cosmetological holy grail, he should forget about pyramid power. If he marketed that magical makeup to every bepimpled teenager, sun-spotted boomer and tattooed 30-something whose toddlers are starting to ask, "Mommy, what's that word across your hips mean?" - well, his power would be unstoppable.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at

The Lost Symbol

By Dan Brown

Doubleday, 509 pages, $29.95